All Things Entertaining and Cultural
When I saw “An American in Paris” on March 21, it was like an omelet made of leftovers. Fundamentally, it was brilliant, with Lise’s ballet background informing potentially dazzling classic and modern dance sequences by director/choreographer Christopher Wheeldon. The problem was the dances were art for art’s sake. Wheeldon created some beautiful pieces, but long sequences had little to do with “An American in Paris” or the episode presented before the dance began.
The lack of relationship between the dances and the storyline were off-putting. They seemed pretentious and made the Wheeldon’s musical heavy and self-conscious in a way that belied the character of both the person and the city referred to in its title. Entire ballet passages could be eliminated with so loss of clarity. In fact, the length and self-serving nature of the ballets were impeding clarity. Form was racing way ahead of content, and the race was not a pretty or engaging one.
Craig Lucas’s book was also too heavy, to the point of being ham-handed. Lucas and/or Wheeldon seized on one line from the 1951 Oscar-winning movie on which this production is derived, and blew it way, way, way, out of proportion, in previews to the detriment of “An American in Paris.”. It’s the line, almost a throwaway, in which Gene Kelly’s Jerry Mulligan is informed that Leslie Caron’s Lise is Jewish and was hidden by the Baurel family during the 1940-1945 Nazi occupation of France.
This can be a significant launching point for a story, but Vincente Minnelli and screenwriter Alan Jay Lerner, neither exactly from the second echelon of talent, showed no interest in it. They concentrated on romance and a liberated, relatively carefree Paris where people danced in the sandwich shops, and kids played giddily in the streets. Their point was to cast the war and its horrors aside and show a nation embracing its Fifth Republic and the restoration of Gay Par-ee,.
Lucas went full tilt into a story about a city struggling through its recovery, a Paris that continued to root out Nazi collaborators, took an interest in discovering who and who wasn’t in the Resistance, and coped with food and other shortages. Lucas emphasized and took as his central theme matters that Minnelli and Lerner alluded to but ignored or passed over with a light, colorful brush stroke.
This being the 21st century, no mention of the Holocaust can be settled with a mere three sentences. Nor can a musical, even one conceived in 1951, be permitted to proceed without introducing a gay, or possibly gay, character. Lucas’s modernity and political correctness bordered on the despicable. It overlarded the Nazi occupation and inculcated an unnecessary suspicion of homosexuality to be oh so modern. Not to mention oh so currently clichéd. (Remember, I’m gay and Jewish, and I thought Lucas had gone too far to include material that was overemphasized or extraneous.)
Cut ahead to May 27, nine weeks later, and “An American in Paris” is a show transformed. Not only have almost all of the sequences that made it a schizoid mélange of the inspired and the infuriating disappeared, but Wheeldon and Lucas have sculpted their work into a felicitous piece that blends some of the tougher elements they wanted to incorporate with the sweet lightness of Minnelli and Lerner’s Parisian romance.
The opening number, once filled with all kinds of fatuous, superfluous material transformed into a lovely, lively overview of Paris circa 1945 and all that is going on there, including the political and the shortages. Passages about Nazi collaboration are present and telling, but they are kept in perspective, being one of several events that represents post-war Paris rather than an overly dark and dominating one. The dance is charming, blending humor with the serious, and establishes not only plot lines but a mood for Wheeldon’s production. One sequence, always in the dance, touches your heart as the red Nazi flag with the swastika in a white circle is torn down and replaced with a triumphant French tri-coleur as a projection of the Arc de Triomphe and the Champs-Elysee come into view.
A second-act number, once ponderous from all that Wheeldon loaded into it, remains complex and detailed but is clearly telling the story about how a ballet gets created, This passage has gone from clunky and indulgent to truly wonderful. All of Wheeldon’s large dance numbers attain a majesty that awes you while commenting on some aspect of “An American in Paris.”
It was as enlightening and as exhilarating as it was fun to see the transition. Wheeldon upped “An American in Paris’s” entertainment and artistic ante 3,000 percent. He converted a “think piece” into vibrant, purposeful art, and the difference is infinite and infinitely gratifying.
Lucas did not exactly soften his book. He found better, more gracious ways to integrate the story of Lise’s family and the Baurel’s heroism into the overall tale of young people in love. It feels as if Lucas compacted his sentiments and made the post-war situation more matter-of-fact than all-encompassing. Mme. Baurel’s fears of gossip and criticism are more understandable than over-reactive and hysterical. The commitment between Henri Baurel and Lise has more focus and creates more dramatic tension..
Wheeldon improved his play just by changing a few settings. A song Lise once sang in her bedroom makes more sense when sung as a different kind of reverie at a café. The parts of about Henri’s possible homosexuality remain gratuitous in a pandering, undramatic way, but this is the 21st century, and a gay character is as de rigueur on Broadway as a diverse chorus. This is not a complaint or a criticism. I just prefer it when things occur organically instead of by self-conscious correctness or give other characters a facile motive to wink and nudge and read into a situation something that may not be there.. (Look at the ludicrous shifting of “Thank Heaven for Little Girls” from Honoré Lachaille to Gigi’s aunts in this year’s production of “Gigi.” The reason? Today’s public might construe Honoré as a pedophile. As if that had ever been mentioned in any critique of the Lerner and Loewe musical to date! Of course, the new implication is “little girls” should be courtesans, or prostitutes! Slap those smug producers’ faces and punch them in their cowardly, overthinking solar plexus. They deserve corporal punishment, the swine!)
The above is all a preamble to why “An American in Paris” leapt from the bottom to the top of my Tony list, both as a preference and prediction for Best Musical.
In its new, finished form, “An American in Paris” is elegant, entertaining, evocative, and thought-provoking. Artistry of all kinds converges on the Palace Theatre stage, as Bob Crowley’s amazing set designs, enhanced by projections created by 59 Productions, Crowley’s magnificent costumes, and Natasha Katz’s sensitive blend with a glorious, if sometimes oddly chosen Gershwin tunes to create a constant delight that is delectable as a divertissement and admirable as an authentic work of theatrical art.
In March, Wheeldon and Lucas were reaching to create a production that would serve as a new standard for musicals that included full ballet sequences and a deep story. By the time “An American in Paris” opened in April, and I saw it in May, the pair had achieved their aim. Their enhancement to Minnelli and Lerner’s simpler story and more modest presentation soared as genuine evolution instead of a piece that didn’t know how to leave be satisfied with greatness and leave Minnelli and Lerner’s original genius alone.
Wheeldon and Lucas have given us a richer, more complexly faceted work that is thrilling to behold and immediately forgivable in the one or two places a heavy hand, usually Lucas’s, remains evident.
I will go into more detail about individual aspects of “An American in Paris” as I review Broadway musicals, make Tony predictions, and reveal Tony preferences.
This was an odd year in terms of going to the theater. Although I saw more than 200 productions in houses spread from Ontario to Virginia, and even a ballet in Prague, time and finances restricted my travel. As much as I’d like to think NealsPaper has some importance to theater discussion in general, I demur from asking for out-of-town tickets as I build a readership, which now averages between 150 and 200 readers a day, with 595 readers for one day being the records. When NealsPaper grows to a consistent 250 daily readers, I’ll be more aggressive.
For the first time in a long time, I did not see everything on Broadway. That affects what I have to say about Tony Awards, as I did not see every nominee.. Naturally, I’ll restrict critical comments to shows and performers I’ve seen while counting on hearsay and Rialto wisdom to aid in predictions.
I have seen about 85% of the nominees and am impressed with the range of the performances. In the headiest category, Best Actress in a Musical, any of the five could be called to the podium without eliciting a legitimate complaint. Chita Rivera, Kristin Chenoweth, Beth Malone, Kelli O’Hara, and Leanne Cope are all so different and all so wonderful, choosing between them is hard. Even Malone, who has the easiest and least bravura role, exudes a deceptive ease that makes her competitive with her more obviously sensational rivals.
Tonys will be discussed category by category, each small article followed by a prediction and a preference.
We’ll start with the musicals.
BEST MUSICAL: “An American in Paris,” “Fun Home,” “Something Rotten!,” “The Visit” — This amazing selection of new works might be the best in recent years, perhaps since 2007 when “Spring Awakening” and “Grey Gardens” vied for top Tony honors. One would be pressed to find four shows so different from one another. Two have sweep while the other two are intimate. One has grand dance numbers that celebrate their beauty as well as their creativity. Two tell special life stories in an intimate fashion. One is a fabulous and brilliantly witty romp that should be so popular and repeatable, it be will running when others are curios getting random revivals.
Because you can’t compare these shows head to head, you have to judge by their individual merits and if one outweighs the other. You also have to consider the Olympic criterion of difficulty as a judging factor.
Looking at every criterion, even with such excellence as “Fun Home,” “The Visit,” and “Something Rotten!” achieve, the recipient of the 2015 Tony for Best Musical has to “An American in Paris.”
This musical has so many elements, the best of which may be the way it harkens back to the wonderful shows of the 50s and 60s and only nods to 21st century sensibilities via the historical and political emphases in Craig Lucas’s book.
From a dance point of view, “An American in Paris” dazzles. Three large production numbers have epic splendor. They tell a cogent story taking place within a bustling mise en scene that offers context and contrast to all that has happened, is happening, and about to happen. The opening number causes a thrill that lasts throughout the show. Vignettes you see in the dance come to more vivid life in sequences yet to unfold. Background and foreshadow conspire happily side by side. Another ballet, in which the rigors of making and staging dance, provides additional brilliance to a show that aims high and hits its mark. A modern dance sequence simultaneously parodies and celebrates the work of Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham and other choreographers.
George and Ira Gershwin provide the score, and Christopher Wheeldon has done well in choosing the chestnuts he would serve his audience. In general, songs are wise and move the story. In one instance, a song, “Liza,” seems to be a mistake since Lise loathes the Americanization of her name, and Jerry uses it to taunt her before we see it become an indication of affection and a personal bond. The acting, by pros like Veanne Cox and Jill Paice, who did not receive Tony nods, enhances the overall show, and Robert Fairchild and Leanne Cope, both primarily ballet stars, are quite winning. Brandon Uranowitz and Max von Essen are engaging performers who make you interested in their individual stories. Craig Lucas’s book incorporates a lot of stories and weaves texture into this romantic comedy. Sometimes he does it with a trowel, but that is not enough to injure this production. Few plays from any year have had such class and sophistication. Best of all, Wheeldon never forgets his first job is to entertain.
Entertainment is hilarious and unending in “Something Rotten,” a farce from the “Funny Thing” school but more interested in the celebrating and lightly mocking the Broadway musical than in lampooning Roman comedy. From its opening syllable to its close, “Something Rotten!” is a riot. Its score is riddled with excellent jokes, puns, and references to Broadway shows ranging from “Oklahoma!” to “Cats.” In one number, called “It’s a Musical,” the homage includes a parade of chorus members appearing as knights, nuns, cats, cowboys, shtetl dwellers, Harmonia Garden waiters, and trapeze artists a la “Pippin,”
The great joy of “Something Rotten” is how smart it is. This a comedy with warmth and some teeth. It’s even shrewder than “Forbidden Broadway” in its satiric approach to all things theater, including a running gag in which Shakespeare steals his best lines from others.
Karey and Wayne Kirkpatrick whip up a brilliant score than has the Yazbek quality of being smart, modern, and serious line by line. The Kirkpatricks’ music is typically Broadway bright, but their lyrics are sharp and provide a lot of fun. Karey Kirkpatrick’s book with John O’Farrell is filled with clever twists, such as a woman disguising herself so she can earn money as a male laborer in an Elizabethan period when women are banned from more than the stage (through not the British throne).
Original in concept and in story, “Something Rotten!” is a show everyone can enjoy. Until I revisited “An American in Paris,” it was my choice for Best Musical. The difference is “An American in Paris” was crafted into a bona fide work of art, “Something Rotten!” makes the most of theater savvy and, if luck matches desert, should treat audiences to a rollicking good time for years to come. I love its verve, its nerve, and its lack of reserve. O’Farrell and the Kirkpatricks also make Shakespeare into the rock star he deserves to be.
“Fun Home” is more of a story with music than a full-blown musical. Jeannine Tesori’s music alternates between a dramatic and declarative tone. Lisa Kron’s lyrics can be affecting or play into the 21st century penchant for writing sentences as if they were poetic and giving information that could just as well have been imparted in dialogue.
Derived from Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel about her life and coming out as a Lesbian, “Fun Home” tells an interesting story but one that has become a bit old hat in the last 20 or so years. The character of Alison’s father, played by Michael Cerveris, emerges as the one indelible and fascinating portrait. Alison herself, played by three actresses representing childhood, college days, and the adult writer, is fairly mundane and doesn’t have the charisma to elevate “Fun Home” beyond the engaging.
Kron and Tesori’s musical is moving and has some sequences that elicit empathy through recognition, but “Fun Home” is not on a par with its Tony rivals in terms of variety, scope, or entertainment value. If it wins the Best Musical prize, and it could, it would be a sign that Broadway has been taken over by the trendy who find anything having to do with coming out as deep, even if it can’t hold a candle to a woman leading an entire town to murder, a panoramic romantic look at post-war Paris, or even a group of desperate Thespians looking to match Shakespeare’s success by coming up with the next new thing. “Fun Home” diverts, but it doesn’t impress, For all of the attention it has garnered, it is not a piece for the ages.
“The Visit” is another piece that has benefited from reworking.
Seen at Virginia’s Signature Theatre about nine years ago, the Kander and Ebb musical with a book by Terrence McNally seemed dark and convoluted. En route to Broadway, the musical received some sagacious editing and a difference in tone that make it more interesting, more provocative, and more dramatic.
Chita Rivera’s Claire Zachanassian emerges as a sympathetic woman who places romance ahead of even justice in explaining how she will restore the town she ruined to opulent grandeur, with a generous stipend to all residents, if the townsfolk will only acquiesce to killing a man who broke her heart decades earlier. Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s ironic tale about a town that will turn against one of its own when promised venal gain is Broadwayfied into a musical that hints at the distaste engendered by Mme. Zachanassian’s proposal and then almost justifies her unconscionable demand to have her jilter with her for all eternity, as a corpse in a casket that will lay beside hers when her end comes.
Rivera and the dancers, John Riddle and Michelle Ventimilla, provide an elegance that makes 2015’s “The Visit” more sinister and more eerie than its previous incarnation. There is potency in John Doyle’s director and true beauty in Graciela Daniele’s dances. In spite of the change of attitude towards Mme. Zachanassian, the McNally-Kander-Ebb pieces is effective and earns its place in this august Tony contest.
|Prediction: An American in Paris||Preference: An American in Paris|
BEST ACTRESS IN A MUSICAL: Kristin Chenoweth in “On the Twentieth Century;” Leanne Cole in “An American in Paris;” Beth Malone in “Fun Home;” Kelli O’Hara in “The King and I;” Chita Rivera in “The Visit” — Alter Tony rules and history and invite all five of these remarkable women to the podium to accept this most competitive of 2015 Tony Awards.
Each of the nominated actresses has a such a bona fide claim to receive Tony’s favor, it is difficult to choose among them and more difficult to divine which will hear her name called as suspense billed.
None of the roles assayed by Chenoweth, Cole, Malone, O’Hara, or Rivera are remotely related. Degrees of difficulty may be all that separates them. Malone, for instance, does not have to carry her show as much as her rivals do and does not have to display as many multiple talents.
Yet there’s an honesty in Malone’s performance as a grown woman, a recognized writer and artist, who labors to come to terms with her family and their unique dysfunction as she sorts out and comes to grips with her route to becoming a Lesbian. The sincere simplicity is what garnered Malone her nomination and put her in such august company on Tony night.
Chita Rivera, the current grande doyenne of musical theater, proves once more the power of her presence on a stage. The minute she comes into view, she grasps your attention and makes you watch every move and listen to every word. This is a professional who is aware of nuance, magnificent at timing, and has a sure sense of how to take and hold an audience in the palm of her hand.
Rivera never rests on laurels. She brings star quality to “The Visit,” but she also brings the assurance and the ability to have her audience adore her that has held her in good stead since I first saw her in “Zorbá” at Philadelphia’s Forrest Theatre in 1970. All aspiring actresses should head to New York’s Lyceum Theatre to see how Chita commands a scene. Because of her, the decision to make Claire Zachanassian, a murderess who destroys a town and asks for a man’s death, a creature worthy of sympathy and regard works. Terrence McNally, John Kander, and Fred Ebb pull off a neat trick. Watching Rivera admire her alter ego as Young Claire, Michelle Ventimilla, also reveals the generosity of this Pantheon performer. Should Rivera’s name be called, as it should have been called for her work in the original production of “Chicago,” “Bring Back Birdie,” and in the revival of “Nine,” it will not be because of sentimentality, but because Rivera is a star of incalculable magnitude who can rivet you with a song and delight you with a move in her 65th year on Broadway.
It would be pleasant if sentimentality sent more than a few Tony votes in the direction of Kelli O’Hara for her unsurprising remarkable work in “The King and I.”
Forget Sutton Foster or Patti LuPone or Billy Porter. The woman who has dominated Broadway stages with the most depth and consistency in the last decade is Kelli O’Hara. She has not only aced every role given to her, she has not repeated herself in portraying of the six characters that have earned her Tony nominations. Her Clara in “The Light in the Piazza,” Babe in “The Pajama Game,” Nellie in “South Pacific,” Billie in “Nice Work if You Can Get It,” Francesca in “The Bridges of Madison County,” and Anna in “The King and I” were all detailed and acted as well as they were sung or danced. She has put a fresh bloom on two frequently acted Rodgers and Hammerstein heroines, her Anna having a humorous, human side that offsets her usual Victorian propriety and formality.
Kelli O’Hara may be the most unknown important star in the American firmament. People would revel in a Tony win for her, especially since O’Hara brings the same intense aplomb to the familiar Anna Leonowens as she brought to other performances, original and in revival. The likelihood is she will have Deborah Kerr luck in a Deborah Kerr role.
Miss Kerr has the unfortunate distinction to be one of three actresses tied for the record for most Oscar nominations without receiving the award, six. (Glenn Close and Thelma Ritter, both Tony recipients, are the others.) Miss Kerr’s are all for Best Actress, as are all of O’Hara’s Tony nods, which also number six. Being passed over this year will put O’Hara in lofty company, but it is possible she will prevail.
Leanne Cope has much to recommend her. She is primarily a dancer and performs superbly in ballet, modern, and traditional production numbers in “An American in Paris.” The revelation is she acts well, and her singing was one of the most marked improvements between the March and May viewings of “An American in Paris.”
A “Paris” sweep is possible, and Cope can get caught in it.
Kristin Chenoweth has the part of Lily Garland between her sharp, attractive little teeth and won’t let it go. While Rivera and O’Hara do so much so well in “The Visit” and “The King and I,” Chenoweth has the added dimension of comedy, broad and subtle, to play.
I saw “On the Twentieth Century” twice. The first time Kristin was luminous, keeping all aspects of her performance, including a heavy petting scene with Andy Karl, in admirable proportion and nailing the two difficult pastiche numbers, “Veronique” and “Babette” with wit and sparkle, batons a-twirling. The second time, the shine remained, but Kristin was already doing some shtick and egging her castmates and the audience on to elicit laughs that were less earned than chiseled.
No matter. Kristin’s is a star turn, and she leaves no doubt about it. Her tigerish scene as Mildred Plotka is a preview to the fireworks Chenoweth creates on stage. “On the Twentieth Century” is the most vulnerable of the shows for which a Best Actress nominated has been earned. It needs strong performances to keep from falling apart or looking too flimsy. Chenoweth keeps things hopping so that “Century” never derails. Star though she is, she also knows how to share scenes and give way to co-stars Peter Gallagher, Karl, Mary Louise Wilson, Mark Linn-Baker, and Michael McGrath when a scene calls for it. Her singing of “Our Private World” is sincere and heavenly. Whatever deviltry Kristin pulls, it advances “On the Twentieth Century” and makes the production another diamond in her well-jeweled crown as a leading lady.
|Prediction: Kristin Chenoweth||Preference: Kristin Chenoweth|
BEST ACTOR IN A MUSICAL: Michael Cerveris in “Fun Home;” Robert Fairchild in “An American in Paris;” Brian D’Arcy James in “Something Rotten!;” Ken Watanabe in “The King and I;” Tony Yazbeck in “On the Town” — This is another worthy group. Yazbeck will certainly garner support, and it would be buoying to see “On the Town” earn him this Tony, not only because Yazbeck has been such a Broadway stalwart for the last decade or so but because he, amazingly, is the only one of the “On the Town” cast nominated for an acting award. (Didn’t the voters notice Jay Armstrong Johnson on the way to the ballot box?)
Alas Yazbeck, another viable contender, D’Arcy James, and the also-ran Watanabe will have to be content with strutting their stuff in front of national TV cameras and enjoying the Tony show as audience members. The contest for this award, clearly and simply is between Fairchild and Cerveris.
Talk about two magnificent performances that have nothing in common except the talent they require to bring characters to vibrant life! In any other year, Yazbeck and D’Arcy James would have a fighting chance. This year, it’s the complicated, complex father in “Fun Home” vs. the smitten budding artist and danseur noble in “An American in Paris” that vie for top honors.
Any voter would be perplexed by having to choose between the urbane Fairchild who thrillingly handles any task required of him, from dominating a ballet to singing a ballad, and the cerebral, unpredictable Cerveris who gives Broadway perhaps the most intriguing character ever to lead a musical. His insecure, inconsistent, uncontrolled Bruce Bechdel gives Alice Ripley’s delusional Diana Goodman from “Next to Normal” a run for being the most neurotic, psychologically challenged musical character of all time.
Both actors are exciting in the way they go about their roles. I have seen and followed Cerveris since he played Dorian Gray in a Wilma Theatre production circa 1982, and it took me several scenes to recognize him and confirm I was right while watching the intermissionless “Fun Home.”
Cerveris shows so many levels of temperament in his performance. His Bruce acts as if he’s a cool guy who wants to be a friend to the three children he’s brought to a small Pennsylvania town so he can take over his recently deceased father’s mortuary, a funeral home the removal of a few letters turns into the eponymous “Fun Home.” He also has random fits of anger and ridicule when his oldest child, a daughter, Alison, does not perform as he expects. A scene involving a geographical drawing is remarkably ugly and moving.
Cerveris hides and reveals Bruce’s various, and sometimes contradictory, traits with such aplomb, you become aware of both the actor’s and the character’s caginess.
Cerveris’s real gift is keeping his character authentic and believable. Bruce’s failures and foibles are legion. His intellect and occasional intention to do well also impress. The audience has to wade around and decipher this inconsistent hodgepodge of a person, one whose proclivity for young men — young, young men — causes legal troubles. Coping with this seemingly friendly monster of a father is as much as a crux of “Fun Home” as Alison’s burgeoning homosexuality is, and certainly the more interesting thread.
You can’t compare Robert Fairchild’s performance to Cerveris’s. Nothing matches. Different genres, different worlds.
You can say Fairchild is extraordinarily luminous, a multi-threat talent whose easy nonchalance only adds to the charm his skills, good looks, and intelligence brings to “An American in Paris’s” lead character of Jerry Mulligan.
Fairchild is Paris boulevardier and American average Joe. He fits as nimbly at a society ball as he does in a small bar where he and others are having drinks and laughs.
As a romantic he could melt “The Heiress’s” Catherine Sloper with his combination of boyish energy and mannish suaveness.
Whether asked to play a war buddy, a rich woman’s companion, a set designer, or a soldier who liberates his true love from a Galleries Lafayette perfume counter, Fairchild brings total naturalness and likeability to his assignment.
Then there’s the dance. A prime member of the New York City Ballet for more than a decade, Fairchild radiates when he accompanies Cope through her various classical paces and impresses when he launches into a modern sequence.
You couldn’t ask for a more complete, versatile, and deftly executed performance than Fairchild’s. The man’s a wonder. And he’s adorable too. He has all of the esprit and élan Gene Kelly displayed in “An American in Paris,” but he has more dramatic scenes to play, and this dancer comes to theater’s talkies as if he was trained to act and sing with the same assiduity that he applied to being one of America’s most lauded dancers.
Cerveris or Fairchild, it’s hard to know. I go back to that Olympic scale for difficulty that comes in so handy in a pinch like this. Any choice I make will break my heart, but that’s show biz!
|Prediction: Robert Fairchild||Preference: Michael Cerveris|